Wade Phillips' waffle of words

IRVING, Texas -- The Cowboys might have to iron out some kinks the size of the hills that overlooked their Oxnard, Calif., practice fields, but Wade Phillips seemed to be in midseason form Monday.

The head coach rationalized his team's poor preseason performance. He praised some individual performances in the wake of a lopsided loss. He made comments that sounded an awful lot like excuses, speaking of "vanilla schemes" and "carrying a short stick" and a tired team after a five-week training camp odyssey.

"I'm not making excuses for this team, because I think they're going to be fine," Phillips said. "We're going to be fine. We're going to have a good football team."

Well, that settles that.

Oh, and in his next breath, Phillips made an excuse just in case the Cowboys don't get right in time for the Sept. 12 season opener against the Washington Redskins. He noted how tough it is to play a division game on the road the first game of the year. So can the criticism until at least Week 2, OK?

It's just Wade being Wade. He's an X's and O's whiz who often comes across as an enabling wimp when he sits in front of a microphone.

Phillips had a tough act to follow. Bill Parcells' press conferences were can't-miss material, a daily reminder that there was a butt-kicking football coach at Valley Ranch.

That simply isn't Phillips' style. He'll go out of his way to search for the silver lining. He'd rather be called soft than publicly call out one of his players. That's why his obvious statement after Saturday night's stinker in Houston that the Cowboys weren't "ready for prime time" was considered newsworthy, especially as he momentarily considered playing the starters in the preseason finale.

By golly, it was almost as if ol' Wade got angry after an awful mail-in job by his team after a week full of walkthroughs. A couple of days later, he softened the blow, assuring the nail-biting fans and knee-jerking media that there was no reason to be concerned about his Cowboys.

Perhaps there was some overreaction after the Cowboys' starters got pushed all over the field on two consecutive weekends. As painful as those games were to watch, the panic button should be pushed in the preseason only due to medical emergencies.

In fairness, Phillips does deserve some benefit of the doubt. After all, he's never had a problem preparing the Cowboys for the beginning of the season, as evidenced by Dallas' 9-2 record in Septembers during his tenure. And New England's Bill Belichick is the only NFL coach with more wins over the past three seasons than Phillips (33-15).

So maybe we shouldn't snicker when Phillips promises the Cowboys will be fine once the games start counting.

"I do believe we are," said Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff. "Now, do we have to pick it up? Yeah, we do. But I do believe we're fine."

Nevertheless, Phillips' flip-the-switch vibe is a bit bothersome, and far too familiar.

While listening to his Monday mutterings, I couldn't help but flash back to December 2007. Remember how the Cowboys figured they could put their feet up after clinching the NFC East title and pick it up again for the playoffs?
October 2008 also came to mind. That's when Phillips couldn't figure out why the Cowboys were criticized so much after an ugly win over a bad Bengals team. Dallas lost three of its next four games, damaging a season in which the Cowboys started with Super Bowl expectations and ended as playoff spectators.

You wonder whether the Cowboys learned their lesson from that 2008 season, when a sense of entitlement seeped into a team coming off a division title.

"What gives us confidence?" receiver Patrick Crayton said. "I think our track record speaks for itself."

After a bit of media backlash, Phillips hit a happy medium Tuesday afternoon. He again expressed confidence that the ugly preseason wasn't a sign of things to come, but he acknowledged that the Cowboys couldn't just assume all would be right once the lights came on for real.

"We've still got work to do," Phillips said, "and we've still got time to do it."

It's not exactly a rant, but by Phillips' standards, it's a firm foot to the rears of a bunch of players who didn't bother showing up for the preseason.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.